In Conversation: Peter Everwine

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The Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State coordinates the annual Philip Levine Prize for Poetry book contest, which is named for the late U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine. The contest — open to any poet writing in English, except current or former students or faculty of Fresno State — offers a $2,000 prize and publication by Anhinga Press. This year’s final judge is Peter Everwine, a poet and Professor Emeritus of English at Fresno State who was Levine’s longtime friend and colleague.

In an email interview, MFA poetry student Gloria Hernandez asked Everwine about his latest collections of poetry and about the challenges of judging national poetry book contests like the Levine Prize.

Gloria Hernandez: I read your collection Listening Long And Late, and I noticed that many of the poems are “from the Nahuatl.” Could you explain how this Aztec language served as an inspiration?

Peter Everwine: I read the Nahuatl poems in Spanish versions made by various scholars at the University of Mexico. I came to them not as a scholar but as a poet, and I learned from them a simplicity of language, form, and lyricism that was lacking in the poems I had been writing. In short, they opened an escape route from where I was stuck, a possibility that may be inherent in the act of adapting or translating from languages and cultures other than English.

Gloria: My favorite section of the book, section three, “Traces,” seemed different in both sound and structure from the rest of the book. What was your thought process behind this shift?

Peter: I was asked to submit a prose-poem to an anthology. I didn’t expect much, not trusting the form. But I found that by abandoning the concept of “line” I could still keep the conciseness of poetry — its charged language and overtones — and tell a small story or fragment of a story. As with the Nahuatl poems, I felt an odd sense of freedom without the loss of what I loved in poetry. Also, I was able to explore the intimacy of memory — “traces” — that seemed important to me. Let me also say, it isn’t as easy as it may seem to be.

Gloria: I know that this fall will be the second time you will be the final judge for the Philip Levine Prize book contest. How did you come to judge a second time?

Peter: I’m judging again because I was asked to do so. More important, as an experienced writer and teacher, I think I have some understanding of what such an award means to a young poet.

Gloria: I also understand that you have judged other contests as well. How did those judging experiences differ from judging the Levine Prize contest?

Peter: As for other judging experiences, the problem is always the same: using all one’s lights, what manuscript finally seems superior to all the other submissions, though these may be excellent. The standards are the same. I can only hope to be “open” enough to perceive the qualities of what I’m judging. I can say, however, that the Levine Prize is especially important to me. It takes its name from a very distinguished poet and my long-time comrade, and it leads to a published book. I want the winner of the prize to have the integrity and grit that Phil Levine could justly admire.

Gloria: In addition to judging the contest, what writing and publishing projects are you working on next?

Peter: I do continue to write. New work appears in recent literary magazines and a chapbook, A Small Clearing, will shortly be published by Aureole Press.

Gloria Hernandez studies poetry in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.

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